The extreme polarization of European and American politics is now widely seen as a threat to democracy. But polarization is often misunderstood as simply political divisiveness that can be resolved if only the two sides came together to find common ground. That’s wrong. Polarization isn’t about partisan animosity or a lack of common ground. It’s about a cognitive distortion that happens when we retreat to our in-groups. Polarization ultimately poisons our relations with our own political side, making us intolerant of any disagreement. To battle polarization, then, we need to start with becoming used to disagreeing with our political allies, argued Robert Tallise.
2021 closed on a sour note for American democracy. Despite electing Joe Biden to the Presidency a year ago, large segments of the population still accept baseless allegations of widespread election fraud. According to one recent poll, more than 40% of Americans doubt that Biden was elected legitimately. Citing this and other “visible deteriorations” of democratic norms, the International IDEA Global State of Democracy Report now classifies the United States a “backsliding democracy.” But according to Kevin Casas-Zamora, International IDEA’s secretary general, the “most concerning” aspect of US politics is “runaway polarization.”
SUGGESTED READING Democracy Can Be Overdone By Robert Talisse The idea that polarization is the predominant ailment of American democracy looms large in political commentary. It is asserted across the partisan spectrum, taking center stage in President Biden’s Inaugural Address and in recent statements by former Presidents Bush and Carter. The diagnosis resonates with voters as well. Though pronounced in the US, polarization isn’t strictly America’s problem. The UK remains significantly divided over Brexit, and one in five French voters identifies as “extreme.” A pair of researchers has called polarization the new specter haunting Europe. Another team says it is a “global crisis.”
So, what is polarization and why is it such a problem? How can it be fixed? Polarization is often presented simply as political divisiveness. This leads people to think that the problem can be solved by bringing the two sides together to hash out their differences in a civil manner. This may be a comforting thought, but it’s wrong. Polarization is a lot more complicated than that. It doesn’t only poison relations among political adversaries. It also can undermine our political alliances. This makes it difficult to correct. In the end, polarization cannot be fixed, only managed.
Polarization doesn’t only poison relations among political adversaries. It also can undermine our political alliances.
The Simple Story: Polarization as Division
Popular discussions tend to assume that polarization is simple: it’s the condition where political groups are divided so deeply that they cannot cooperate. As democracy requires cooperation, polarization makes for political deadlock. Thus, polarization is marked by intensified cross-partisan animosity, making politics increasingly nasty and frustrating.
When polarization is understood in these terms, the solution seems obvious. To fix polarization, we must respectfully come together and build common ground. This simple story faces an important criticism. In focusing on parties abandoning the common ground, it suggests that polarization is always symmetrical, with both groups equally at fault. This means that both parties are equally responsible for repairing their rifts.
However, in the US, partisan divides aren’t due to bilateral departure from the common ground, but rather to the radicalization of the Republican Party, which is currently awash in conspiracy theories, disinformation, victim fantasies, and calls for a “national divorce” that would establish single-party rule. Given this, the prescription that everyone must come together to heal divisions is a “both sides” ruse that benefits those who have deserted democracy. Polarization, then, is a misdirection. It must be abandoned as a diagnosis. This criticism is formidable. But it simply shows that the simple story is simplistic.
According to a nuanced view, the problem of polarization consists neither in the intensification of partisan animosity, nor in the abandoning of common ground.
The Nuanced Story: Polarization as a Loop
According to a nuanced view, the problem of polarization consists neither in the intensification of partisan animosity, nor in the abandoning of common ground. Rather, it has to do with the sources of animosity and intransigence, and how they create a self-reinforcing loop of political dysfunction.
To see this, we must distinguish political polarization from belief polarization.
Political polarization is a measure of the ideological distance between opposed parties. When it is severe, the common ground between opponents recedes, resulting in the familiar logjams, standoffs, inflexibility, and resentment.
Belief polarization (also called group polarization) is a cognitive phenomenon that besets likeminded groups. Roughly, interaction with likeminded others transforms us into more extreme versions of ourselves. When surrounded by allies, we come to embrace more radical formulations of our ideas. Our more extreme selves are also overly confident, so we become less responsive to counterevidence, more dismissive of criticism, and more ready to engage in risky behavior on behalf of our views.
Belief polarization also causes us to develop negative feelings towards those unlike ourselves. As we grow to regard their ideas as naïve, irrational, and unfounded, we come to see them as craven, untrustworthy, and benighted. Thus, as we shift towards political extremity, we come more fully to define ourselves and others in terms of partisanship, dividing the world into political allies and foes. Eventually politics expands beyond policy ideas into entire lifestyles. In the United States today, the size of one’s family, the interior of one’s home, where one buys groceries, and what one does on vacation are all tightly indicative of one’s politics. Everyday activities have become expressive of one’s political identity, and thus of one’s contempt for the out-group. Meanwhile, partisan rifts barely track actual policy disagreements. For example, citizens across the spectrum tend to agree that the minimum wage should be raised and that steps should be taken to create affordable housing for low and middle income families. Over sixty percent think that abortion should remain legal. A cross-partisan majority also supports same-sex marriage and thinks that politics is too heavily influenced by money.
Interaction with likeminded others transforms us into more extreme versions of ourselves.
The two forms of polarization form a self-reinforcing loop. When citizens are divided into partisan tribes, living separate lives and each fixated on contempt for the other, politicians are incentivized to amplify cross-partisan hostility. And because the citizenry is divided over lifestyle choices rather than policy ideas, office holders are released from the usual electoral pressure to advance a legislative platform. They can gain reelection simply on their antagonism. Governing and campaigning strictly by stoking hostility and contempt for the other side becomes prudent strategy.
As politicians amplify their rifts, citizens are cued to further segregate. This foments additional belief polarization, which in turn rewards political intransigence among parties and officials. Democracy gets submerged in the merely symbolic and tribal. As a result, our capacities for responsible citizenship -- specifically, our aptitude for navigating political disagreement -- atrophy. We become enamored with the profoundly antidemocratic view that democracy is possible only among people who are just like ourselves.
That’s the nuanced story. It doesn’t claim that “both sides” have deserted the common ground. It doesn’t assign equal blame to both parties. It is consistent with the view that one major political party in the United States has embraced antidemocratic ideals. The nuanced story asserts only that the dysfunction of polarization lies in the interaction between well-established cognitive forces and institutional features of democracy. The claim is not that deep partisan rifts are intrinsically bad, but rather that polarization is degenerative of the capacities of responsible citizenship.
We become enamored with the profoundly antidemocratic view that democracy is possible only among people who are just like ourselves.
Polarization among Allies
A critic may insist that the nuanced story remains objectionable because even if the diagnosis of the nature of polarization is a lot more complex, the way to resolve it would ultimately be the same as in the case of the simple polarization diagnosis. Because what way is there to fix polarization, other than for both sides to come together? Even this more complex diagnosis, therefore, still places the burden of fixing polarization squarely on the side of those who are least responsible for its dysfunctions.
This objection is misplaced. While the nuanced story holds that belief polarization is something to be addressed by conservative and liberal alliances alike, it does not call for opposing sides to come together.
Here’s why. As I argue in Sustaining Democracy, belief polarization doesn’t only toxify our relations with opponents. It also degrades relations among allies. As society sorts into partisan lifestyles, each camp grows more invested in policing the borders between them. As our alliances fixate on hostility towards the out-group, they also develop escalating standards for authentic in-group membership. That is, belief polarized groups become more internally conformist and intolerant of differences among allies. As the group grows more invested in homogeneity, it also becomes more reliant on standard-setters, thereby becoming more internally hierarchical. Group members thus grow less able to navigate disagreement within the group. This leads them to splinter and shrink.
Tightly knit political alliances tend to succeed when it comes to stoking out-group animus and critique. But when it’s time to work on a positive agenda beyond the aim of defeating the opposition, such alliances tend erupt in debates over what counts as authentic membership in the group.
Let’s grant that in the United States, the Republicans have, indeed, embraced authoritarianism. And let’s conclude that attempts to engage with them are futile. It does not follow that polarization is strictly their problem. Quite the opposite. In the absence of democratic relations with partisan foes, belief polarization doesn’t disintegrate. Rather, it turns us against our allies, creating fractures and ultimately undermining our political objectives. To maintain healthy alliances, then, we need civic relations with our critics. We don’t need to make peace with them, but we do need access to their objections; we don’t need to forge common ground with them, but we do need to find out why they think we’re wrong. Consequently, that one’s partisan foes have divested from democratic norms makes the task of curtailing conformity pressures among one’s allies more difficult.
By reminding ourselves that politics always involves disputation, even among those of our own party, we begin to weaken in-group conformity and expand our sense of tolerable doctrinal variation.
Although toxic cross-partisan relations are one troubling upshot of polarization, the remedy doesn’t lie with healing rifts among opponents. To be clear, democracy would benefit from a healthy dose of cross-partisan civility. My point is we cannot disrupt the polarization loop by proceeding as we would if our democracy were not in its grip. Still, we remain democratic citizens, participants in self-government. We’re stuck together. And we cannot simply ignore one another.
Where does that leave us? The nuanced story shows, first, that polarization cannot be solved but only managed. Second, it reminds us that although belief polarization toxifies cross-partisan relations, the problem doesn’t stop there. Belief polarization also negatively impacts our alliances. It escalates conformity within our coalitions, shrinking our conception of tolerable disagreement among our allies.
If we are convinced that our partisan opponents are beyond the pale, it becomes even more important to counteract conformity pressures within our alliances. If we can’t engage with our partisan critics, we need to invent them. One way this can be done is by engaging disagreements with our allies. By taking steps to remind ourselves that politics always involves disputation, even among those who vote for the same candidates and affiliate with our own party, we begin to weaken in-group conformity by expanding our sense of tolerable doctrinal variation. This will not only help to preserve and strengthen our coalitions. It may also assist us in managing disputes with our political foes. In disrupting the tendency to see political opponents as necessarily beyond the pale, we begin to dismantle some of the polarization loop’s worst effects.